As it was a principal object of this Miscellany, to collect such a series of early poetry as should exhibit specimens of our language through all its gradations, it may, perhaps, be convenient to the reader to bring into one point of view, the various conclusions or conjectures which these specimens have suggested. These are dispersed through the first volume of the work, so as to furm a succinct and intelligible, if not a satisfactory, history of the formation and early progress of the English language.

The Saxon conquerors of this country, having been converted to Christianity, towards the close of the sixth century, appear to have engaged in the pursuit of learning, with the usual eagerness of proselytes. Great numbers of them, travelling to Rome, in quest of religious truth, distinguished themselves by their zeal and industry, and, returning to their own country, brought with them considerable stores of such learning, as that age could furnish. At a time when single books were estimated so highly, as to form no trifling part of a valuable patrimony, large libraries were founded at Weremouth, in Northumberland, at Hexham, at York, and other places; and the writings of Venerable Bede, of Alcuinus, and many other scholars who issued from these seminaries, excited universal and merited admiration,

But the scholars of the eighth century, communicating only with each other, and taking little interest in the concerns of such of their fellowcreatures as were unable to express their happiness or misery in Greek or Latin, do not seem to have produced very extensive benefits to mankind. So much of life was wasted in' acquiring erudition, that little remained for the application of it; and, as nature seldom produces a long succession of prodigies, learning expired with its first professors. Alfred is said to have lamented that, in his youth, very few priests, south of the Humber, understood the ordinary service of the church; and that he knew none, south of the Thames, who were capable of turning a piece of Latin into Saxon.

It may perhaps have been matter of regret to this great monarch that he was unable to naturalize among his subjects the languages of Greece and Rome, which he considered as the depositaries of much useful information; but, by translating into Saxon the most valuable works of antiquity that. could then be procured, he accomplished his purpose more effectually. He at the same time euriched and polished his native language, winch, being already the organ of the laws, and bécoming, during his reign, the vehicle of religion, of science, and of the arts, acquired a copiousness and elegance, superior to that of any of the Teutonic or Romance dialects, then spoken in Europe.

This era of pure Saxon literature was, however, of short duration. The incessant invasions, and ultimate subjugation of the country by the Danes, a nation of kindred origin, but far inferior to the Saxons in civilization, not only checked the progress of improvement, but nearly replunged our language into its pristine barbarism. Its subsequent recovery was prevented, first by the conduct of Edward the Confessor and his courtiers, who took a miserable pride in adopting a foreign idiom, instead of attempting to restore the energy of their own, and, soon afterwards, by the Norman conquest.

The establishment of our present mixed I language, and indeed every link in the chain of its history, may, perhaps, be traced to this important event, as to its remote cause and origin. But the mode of its operation has not been, I think,



satisfactorily explained ; too much having been attributed to the supposed prejudices, and imaginary designs of the conqueror, while the general circumstances in, which he was placed, and the obvious tendency of his general pulicy, have been too much overlooked.

In the first place it seems evident, that if the Normans, after completing their conquest, had readily mingled with the native inhabitants of the country, they could have effected only a very slight and temporary alteration in the Saxon language. Their numbers were too small. For this reason, the ancestors of these very Normans who established themselves in Neustria, produced no sensible change in the Romance dialect of that province. If some few corruptions had been introduced by the first admixture, they probably would have disappeared after one or two generations; and the purity of the written language would have been preserved, by means of the almost innumerable models of composition which then existed, and of which considerable remains are still preserved.

But the geueral disaffection and spirit of revolt, excited among the English by the evident partiality of the Conqueror to the partners of his victory, compelled him to adopt a system of defence for

« ElőzőTovább »